Friday, March 25, 2011

Censorship as compliment: Sharon Shapiro at Poem 88

Posted By on Fri, Mar 25, 2011 at 7:15 PM

Sharon Shapiro, Ease
  • Sharon Shapiro, "Ease"
Late last month, the artist Sharon Shapiro emailed CL to let us know that complaints over her solo exhibition, California, had forced the gallery to move a painting in the exhibition out of prominent view. The show, currently at the Poem 88-curated Tanner Hill Gallery, includes some paintings based on images from vintage men’s magazines: buxom women lounging glamorously in various states of undress.

Earlier this week, curator Robin Bernat said in an email that moving the paintings hadn't been enough. According to Bernat, the landlord Jamestown Properties wanted a couple paintings removed entirely from the gallery but agreed to a compromise of putting paper over a window with a direct view at them.

Just a few hours later, she wrote back to say that the landlord had changed their tune, the paper was coming off, and that “the mainly "offensive" images must remain in the back gallery space but they are visible through the windows.” It is not entirely clear why the issue was resolved. A PR representative for Jamestown Properties, who manage the White Provisions building where Tanner Hill Gallery is located, responded to CL's inquiries by saying "The paper on one window of Tanner Hill Gallery at White Provision was removed on Tuesday, March 22. We are unable to provide a comment from a representative of White Provision."

Bernat was quick to state that she wasn’t bothered so much by the landlord, even asserting their “right to control the content on their private property,” but mentioned that the issue of Shapiro’s offensiveness was intriguing to her. “We see Sharon's re-interpretation of [the images from men’s magazines] as an act of ownership and portrayal of the power of female sexuality,” she wrote, openly wondering about the “radical or provocative” notions in “the depiction of the female form as an act of feminist power.”

Those implications about sexual power certainly may be part of what distinguishes Shaprio's paintings from a statue in Woodruff Park or a Renaissance painting in the High, but it still doesn’t resolve the perplexing issues that motivate censorship.

In part because of the permissive culture of the internet (or any number of other cultural shifts), the act of censorship seems more and more likely to result in promoting the artwork in question. The recent removal of work by David Wojnarowicz from the National Portrait Gallery, though frustrating and sad, has done more to introduce his work to a broad audience than keeping it in the gallery would have done. A photograph (NSFW) recently removed by the so-called “Pretty Police” at SCAD was widely circulated after the incident.

Though it might sound counter-intuitive, complaints and a stir over Shapiro’s paintings might be considered a good thing for the artist, perhaps a sign that her work is touching a cultural nerve about sexual power and the female form. This might not be the intention of the folks complaining about it, but they’re paying her a compliment.

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